SP, BSP pledge support; Trinamool may abstain
After months of speculation, confusion, high drama and talk of dark horses, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — minus the Trinamool Congress — finally announced its presidential candidate, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
At the end of an hour-long meeting of UPA partners at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence on Friday evening, Congress president Sonia Gandhi declared in front of TV cameras that the UPA had picked Mr. Mukherjee as its nominee for Rashtrapati Bhavan. “There is broad support for his candidature,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “The UPA appeals to all political parties and all MPs and MLAs to support the candidature of Mr. Mukherjee for the office of President.”
As UPA members broke into applause and Mr. Mukherjee went pink, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's T.R. Baalu, as if on cue, whipped out three ponnadais (shawls) for Ms. Gandhi, Dr. Singh and Mr. Mukherjee, seconds after he gave the Congress president an enormous basket of flowers. As UPA leaders milled around Mr. Mukherjee, congratulating him, Mr. Baalu hovered around him, beaming much like the Best Man at a wedding.
The optics had clearly changed.
Within the hour, Samajwadi Party general secretary Ramgopal Yadav announced that his party would back Mr. Mukherjee's candidature; minutes later, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati addressed a press conference in Lucknow, declaring her party's support for him.
With the UPA, minus the Trinamool, holding 37.6 per cent of the vote, the endorsement by the SP and the BSP meant that Mr. Mukherjee's support base stands at 47.7 per cent. The four Left Parties will take a final view on June 21, but indications are that they have no reservations about his candidature. If they too decide to back Mr. Mukherjee, his support will stand at 52.4 per cent of the Electoral College.
Meanwhile, even as Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi began working the phones after the UPA meeting, making personal appeals to leaders of all parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Mukherjee, in response to a question on the Trinamool's obdurate stand, smiled and told journalists: “She is like my sister.”
Indeed, till the Presidential election ends, all eyes will be on the Trinamool and its 4.4 per cent vote share. Having realised that the Bengal pride card may not be enough to change the mercurial Ms. Banerjee's mind, Congress managers, party sources say, have used the past 48 hours to try and persuade those Trinamool MPs and MLAs unhappy with Ms. Banerjee to vote for the UPA candidate, banking on the fact that there is no whip in the Presidential election.
Aware of this, Ms. Banerjee may ask her legislators to abstain from voting altogether, according to Trinamool sources.
Meanwhile, the Trinamool MP and former Railway Minister, Dinesh Trivedi, who was sacked for not toeing the party line over the fare increase, told a TV channel on Friday that if the Trinamool were to sever links with the UPA, it would make it even tougher for Ms. Banerjee to secure a bailout package for the cash-strapped West Bengal.
Of course, the question of mustering support for Mr. Mukherjee remains relevant only if there is another candidate. As things stand, Ms. Bannerjee's choice, the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, hasn't found any declared supporters, besides the Trinamool. Mr. Kalam has indicated more than once that unless he is a consensus candidate, he will not contest.
On the other hand, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, P.A. Sangma, being backed by the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal, reiterated on Friday that he was still in the race. It now remains to be seen whether his candidature gains further ballast: the BJP-led NDA is yet to announce whether it will back Mr. Sangma or Mr. Mukherjee.